Just after you throw away your Halloween costume and start marinating your signature dishes for Thanksgiving, you’ll usually do one more thing: pull out that dusty Christmas CD or cue up a playlist on Spotify.
Instead of new holiday music, we tend to go to the classics — from White Christmas to Santa Claus is Coming to Town to Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. But every year, more and more pop stars tackle the Christmas album, hoping to soothe your ears with cheery songs and create timeless holiday music of their own creation, like Mariah Carey did with All I Want for Christmas Is You, released in 1994 but still popular today.
Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Neil Diamond, and Kacey Musgraves are some of the brave souls who have entered the challenge of creating original holiday music, mixed with the classics, while She & Him and Sarah McLachlan stick to tradition. R. Kelly was the most ambitious, with an entire album of new material.
A review of those aforementioned albums, released this year, below.
1. Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, Christmas Together
Country superstar Garth Brooks and his singer-songwriter wife Trisha Yearwood have each done Christmas albums, but they haven’t teamed up on one — until now.
Christmas Together debuts this holiday season with a unique selection of tracks that has the couple largely featuring diverse songs instead of holiday classics like Silent Night or Little Drummer Boy.
A highlight is a pair of Brooks and Yearwood duets on Baby It’s Cold Outside and I’m Beginning to See the Light.
Both artists, however, get a chance to shine.
Brooks has the fun song Ugly Christmas Sweater that features the humorous lyrics he’s been known to write on hits like Friends in Low Places. This time he sings, “There’s really nothing better than a beautiful girl in an ugly Christmas sweater.” Brooks also has a spirited version of Feliz Navidad and offers a duet with James Taylor on What I’m Thankful For (The Thanksgiving Song).
Yearwood gives her signature country slow-song treatment to The Man with the Bag and has her own fun with Santa Baby.
2. Neil Diamond, Acoustic Christmas
With his deep, gravelly voice, Neil Diamond sounds like one might imagine a crooning St Nick — suffice to say, he sounds like Christmas.
Perhaps that’s why he’s a regular at making holiday albums — the newly released Acoustic Christmas is his fourth.
As the title suggests, this latest holiday record features Diamond classics like Silent Night and Hark the Herald Angels Sing in a stripped down fashion, unlike some of his more produced Christmas music.
It also includes a few originals by Diamond: Christmas Prayers is a particularly poignant song that speaks to the feeling of missing loved ones no longer around to celebrate; Diamond refers to them as “Christmas angels.”
If you’ve already got Diamond’s other Christmas albums in your rotation, Acoustic Christmas may seem a tad redundant, but can you ever really have too much Neil Diamond?
3. She & Him, Christmas Party
She & Him, Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward, are relaxing and enchanting on their second Christmas album, covering tunes from Frank Sinatra and Mariah Carey to Chuck Berry and Vashti Bunyan.
Carey’s All I Want for Christmas Is You, an instant classic upon its 1994 release, starts things off on a joyous note with its 1960s Brian Wilson/Phil Spector makeover. Must Be Santa is decorated with accordions and mariachi horns, a reminder that Christmas is a summer celebration in the Southern Hemisphere. Mele Kalikimaka brings Christmas warmth from Hawaii and Ward’s guitar solo heats up Berry’s Run Run Rudolph.
Jenny Lewis harmonises on Winter Wonderland and Deschanel replaces the helium in the Chipmunks’ Christmas Don’t Be Late with ukulele strums and a subdued yet yearning vocal.
She & Him’s Christmas Party is a classy mood setter for You & Me & Everyone.
4. Kacey Musgraves, A Very Kacey Christmas
Kacey Musgraves’ girlish voice and bouncy beats bring some much needed levity to this year’s holiday season. The 12 tracks are an eclectic mix of old — Rudolph and Let it Snow — and new, including four self-penned tunes.
The highlight is A Willie Nice Christmas, honouring fellow Texan Willie Nelson, who adds trademark picking and smoky vocals on lines like “May we all stay higher than the angel on the top of the tree.” Leon Bridges adds soul to the pure pop sound of Musgraves’ Present without a Bow.
A Western swing-y version of Mele Kalikimaka is a boot-scootin’ step above the tune’s traditional island sound. And kids will love the playful I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas.
The mood turns subdued on Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, with the whine of a steel guitar challenging the hopeful lyrics.
But with her chirpy charm, Musgraves somehow makes you believe when she sings, “From now on our troubles will be out of sight.”
5. R. Kelly, 12 Nights of Christmas
Given R. Kelly’s track record, you wouldn’t be wrong to expect his first Christmas album to be raunchy, over-the-top camp, complete with double entendres about Christmas logs and stuffed stockings.
But R. Kelly always does the unexpected, and he delivers a surprise on 12 Nights of Christmas with a charming collection of original songs that could be future Christmas classics.
The album starts off with My Wish for Christmas, and it has nothing to do with bumping and grinding — it’s a heartwarming, soulful plea for love and peace. There’s a quick pivot to romance, though, with Snowman, a sweet, innocent ditty about a search for the perfect woman made of snow (and yes, I did use the word “innocent” and R. Kelly in the same sentence).
Now, that’s not to say there isn’t any sex talk, but it’s not explicit, just PG-rated references to lovemaking that won’t make grandma blush at the holiday gathering. Flying on My Sleigh is a great example — the midtempo throwback song sounds like it could be a Smokey Robinson Quiet Storm outtake as Kelly sings of “making love on a bed of clouds.” Christmas Lovin’ harkens back to classic Chicago R’n’B as he sings of making love “under the Christmas tree.” And on the slow groove Mrs Santa Claus, he keeps it relatively tame, promising to make “holiday love” and “unwrap you,” surely making the North Pole hotter than it’s ever been.
With 12 Nights of Christmas, Kelly has written and produced an album of sexy and soulful tunes, a very welcome change from the traditional, and sometimes stale, holiday playlist.
6. Sarah McLachlan, Wonderland
Sarah McLachlan says she loves Christmas and it shows on her third holiday album, arriving just a year after her second. The Grammy winner’s angelic voice suits seasonal songs perfectly, and the trademark way her soprano breaks on certain high notes gives new feeling to these mostly classic carols.
Emmylou Harris, Martha Wainwright, Canada’s indie rock band Half Moon Run and the Bulgarian Symphony Orchestra add depth and resonance on several of the 13 tracks.
The trick with any conventional holiday album is to sound fresh without veering too far from tradition. Here, that effort sometimes sounds forced — cue the clunky percussion arrangement on Angels We Have Heard on High and the thumping orchestral background on Let It Snow.
But standouts include a haunting version of Huron Carol, billed as Canada’s oldest Christmas song, and a folky, spirited rendition of Go Tell it on the Mountain.
O Come all ye Faithful, opening ethereally with McLachlan singing a cappella, is another highlight. The orchestral arrangement that follows adds a flourish though that at times sounds overwrought.